Zantigo: better than Taco Bell, killed by PepsiCo in 1987

One of the great tragedies to befall American civilization in the last thirty-odd years is the victory of Taco Bell in the Mexican fast food wars. As anyone who remembers the 1970s and 1980s will tell you, we once had a far better option.

I’m talking, of course about Zantigo. The Zantigo restaurant chain was founded in 1969 and quickly expanded. There were once more than eighty Zantigo locations in the United States. In 1977 or 1986, it was much easier to find a Zantigo in Cincinnati, Ohio than it was to find a Taco Hell, er Bell.

Zantigo was simply better, in the opinion of almost anyone who was alive in the 1970s and/or 1980s and was, therefore, able to try both. No one gets excited about a trip to Taco Bell. But a trip to Zantigo was actually a decent dining experience, by fast-food standards.

I especially miss the Zantigo Cheese Chilito. Many aging Zantigo fans will tell you the same thing. (Zantigo’s bean burritos were pretty good, too.)

I don’t exactly hate Taco Bell.  A lunch at Taco Bell still beats going without lunch entirely. But I will never go out of my way to eat there. I eat at Taco Bell maybe once or twice per year. I used to eat at Zantigo multiple times per week.

Like I said, Zantigo was simply better.

So what the heck happened?

Zantigo was the victim of PepsiCo, in a manner of speaking. In 1986, KFC owned Zantigo, and RJR Nabisco owned KFC. PepsiCo bought KFC, and in the process acquired Zantigo.

(If you’re having trouble keeping that chain of ownership straight, don’t feel too bad. Such was indicative of the merger mania that prevailed in the 1980s.)

Zantigo might have survived the PepsiCo acquisition, if not for the fact that PepsiCo already owned Taco Bell. The corporate number crunchers at PepsiCo decided that it would be more efficient to only keep one Mexican fast-food chain. And so of course they kept the more mediocre one, and killed the good one.

PepsiCo’s destruction of Zantigo began in late 1986. By the end of 1987, Zantigo was a thing of the past.

In most cases, Zantigo restaurants were simply rebranded as Taco Bells, with Taco Bell’s inferior menu and ingredients. The two Zantigo locations near my house became Taco Bells as 1987 came to a close.

Such was the end of a great era in Mexican fast food. Zantigo, 1969-1987, RIP.